Ron DeSantis’ decision to announce his 2024 White House bid in a conversation with Elon Musk on Twitter on Wednesday will make a typically blunt statement about his campaign, the unruly populism of the modern Republican Party and an accelerating conservative media revolution.
Florida’s governor will finally jump into the race by throwing down a gauntlet to ex-President Donald Trump with a launch strategy that frames him as the true anti-establishment rebel in the race who is willing to crush the conventions of traditional presidential politics.
His choice of venue on Twitter Spaces – the site’s audio platform – also exemplifies the Trump-era GOP’s transformation into a party that rewards gesture politics and whose activists respond to the unmoderated social media jungle while disdaining traditional standards of conduct and governance.
But while Twitter’s attractiveness to conservative voters under Musk, who has 141 million followers, means DeSantis may be making a shrewd move in a GOP primary, he could further damage an already questionable reputation among more moderate voters he’d need in a general election by appearing on an increasingly polarizing platform.
That’s because Twitter, which once offered a platform for democratic movements in the Arab Spring, has been transformed by its new owner into a febrile circus of untamed free speech, conspiracy theories and unverifiable information. Only this week, a fake image of an explosion near the Pentagon went viral, causing a blip on the stock market in a potential preview of a presidential campaign likely to be plagued by misinformation and AI-generated falsehoods. Musk has, meanwhile, shown a willingness to ignite his own Twitter infernos, so his increasingly prominent role suggests the 2024 presidential race could be just as turbulent as the 2016 and 2020 editions, which were marked by Trump’s extreme rhetoric and voter fraud accusations.
Another mind-bending twist to election season came on Tuesday with the former president’s virtual court appearance in a case arising out of a hush money payment to a former adult film star in which he has already pleaded not guilty. Judge Juan Merchan set a trial date for March 25, 2024 – in the middle of primary season. The timetable raises the prospect that Trump could use the trial as a stage to drive home his claim that he’s a victim of political persecution. But it also creates a risk for Trump that he could be criminally convicted while he’s still fighting for the GOP nomination – an extraordinary and unprecedented scenario.
By choosing Twitter to make his own splash, DeSantis appears to be targeting a dramatic moment that could restore a sense of momentum to GOP primary aspirations that were soaring six months ago but that have been undermined by his own missteps and Trump’s recent political rebound.
In embracing Musk, DeSantis is associating himself with a hero of conservatives who have long claimed they are being censored on social media. He’s taking a swipe at Trump, who was banned from tweeting by the company’s previous ownership and has so far preferred the home ground of his own platform, Truth Social, even after Musk restored his account. Trump’s 2016 campaign and entire presidency unfolded in a torrent of stream of consciousness tweets that he used to great effect – even if he left his nation stressed and exhausted.
DeSantis is taking an ostentatious jab at traditional media, which is reviled by many conservatives, by showing he is ready to bypass regular conventions of presidential campaigns. His launch will also create a sharp contrast with Trump’s own rambling, and even boring, campaign opening speech at Mar-a-Lago in November, which lacked any sense of political dynamism.
The Florida governor will also show how far the GOP has traveled from its roots as a bastion of tradition and the extent to which the internet and the fragmentation of the media into partisan blocks has changed presidential campaigns. In 1979, for instance, Ronald Reagan announced his presidential bid with a grandfatherly speech from a cozy study that looked like the inside of a country club. George W. Bush set off on the road to the White House 20 years later from a farm in Iowa. Now the best way to reach the most GOP voters is online.
By breaking the mold of presidential announcements, DeSantis is borrowing from Trump’s unconventional playbook. One lesson of the 45th president’s riotous political career is that anything calculated to offend liberals and mainstream media commentators is often wildly popular with grassroots GOP primary voters.
DeSantis is already running to the right of Trump by targeting what he calls “woke” measures on diversity, equity and inclusion and staking out conservative positions on social issues. Now, he’s also seeking to steal Trump’s reputation as the great disruptor.
The DeSantis announcement will also help enshrine an emerging power shift in conservative media. His choice of Twitter recognizes the importance of the social network to right-wing voters under Musk and may quicken the shift away from Fox news as the most dynamic platform for the new champions of the conservative movement. It comes after the top-rated Fox news host Tucker Carlson said he’d relaunch his show on Twitter after being ousted from Rupert Murdoch’s primetime line-up after the firm paid $787 million to settle a defamation suit linked to its promotion of election lies and misinformation after the 2020 election.
With his appearance, DeSantis is driving home his argument that social media networks have sought to oppress the speech of conservatives – a popular viewpoint on the right. In his autobiography “The Courage to be Free,” DeSantis slammed companies like Facebook and Twitter, under its previous owners, which he said made “censorship decisions that always seem to err on the side of leftist orthodoxy, they distort the American political system because so much political speech now takes place on these supposedly open platforms.”
Still, DeSantis is unlikely to turn his back on Fox, which has offered him plentiful air time – a possible sign the Murdoch family is beginning to tire of the ex-president.
The DeSantis launch strategy will not come without risks. The untamed environment of Twitter and his association with Musk threaten to undermine the case DeSantis has been implicitly making to Republican voters – that he can offer a more stable and disciplined style of leadership than that shown by Trump in his tempestuous White House term.
And by avoiding the kind of big, staged political announcement in front of a large crowd, DeSantis risks emboldening Trump’s mocking critique that the Florida governor is draining support by the day, following polls that show him falling further behind the former president, albeit ahead of candidates like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
The virtual announcement could also fuel claims by Trump that his one-time protégé, whom he now accuses of betrayal for running for president, lacks the political skills to compete on a less controlled stage. A pro-Trump super PAC mocked DeSantis ahead of his online announcement, calling it “one of the most out-of-touch campaign launches in modern history.”
“The only thing less relatable than a niche campaign launch on Twitter, is DeSantis’ after party at the uber elite Four Seasons resort in Miami,” MAGA Inc., the Trump-aligned super PAC, said in a statement Tuesday.
People familiar with the DeSantis campaign blueprint, however, indicated the Florida governor would soon launch a relentless blitz of campaign appearances in key swing states, intended to contrast his energy with that of his older rivals, Trump and President Joe Biden.
Trump’s team and his allies are planning an aggressive operation to try to drown out the DeSantis launch on Wednesday. MAGA Inc. is already slamming the Florida governor for his early support of the Covid-19 vaccine during the pandemic as it seeks to undermine his credibility among conservatives who balked at government health advice.
But this is yet another sign of how head-spinning the Republican primary could get. After all, it was Trump who once claimed all the credit for developing the vaccine during his presidency. Now his supporters are condemning DeSantis for trying to save lives with it.